Although nobody thinks of Radiohead as a dance band, Thom Yorke and his mates have spent the last decade developing an intoxicating rhythmic feel. Unveiled spectacularly on 200’s Kid A, the group’s embrace of the groove in all its heady and visceral nuances reached a sublime level of refinement on the tracks “15 Step,” “Bodysnatchers,” “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” “The Reckoner” and “Jigsaw Falling Into place” from the 2007 masterpiece In Rainbows. And those grooves have been physically manifested onstage by Yorke’s spastic bobblehead moves at the mic, along with the pugilistic body language of Colin Greenwood as he relentlessly stalks the groove, putting his full weight behind each punching bassline.
In general, latter-day Radiohead’s infectious rhythms pose a life-embracing counterpoint to its zeitgeist-capturing themes of anxiety, alienation and information overload. These seductive rhythmic foundations, combined with the melodic aeronautics carried by Yorke’s fallen angel’s voice, render even the darkest of the band’s songs—which might be unbearably oppressive otherwise—deeply spiritual and downright inspiring.
The Eraser, Yorke’s 2006 boy-with-his-laptop album, served to isolate his innate feel for rhythm, subtly but emphatically revealing the source of Radiohead’s unique rhythmic character. Little did we—or he—know that four years later, these intensely solitary tracks would serve as the blueprint for a “jungle dance party,” as Live Music Blog’s Justin wrote of the April 16 Oakland performance on Atoms for Peace’s eight-date mini-tour, culminating in a Sunday night set at Coachella. The performances were fueled by high-octane rhythms that “didn’t pound so much as undulate, complementing Yorke’s airy vocal melodies,” according to the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot, getting to the jist of the experience. That he put together a carefully selected crew of players to explore this set of songs, as well as some new material and a handful of Radiohead staples, turns out to have been yet another stroke of genius on the part of the cerebral frontman.
I caught Saturday night’s show, which went down in the sylvan hillside setting of the Santa Barbara County Bowl, a venue that seems to bring out the best in the acts that play there. It was Yorke’s third experience at the Bowl, following 2001 and 2008 Radiohead shows, and I strongly suspect he purposely chose it, having experienced its unmatched vibe potential.
On the drive up the 101 from L.A., I played The Eraser from start to finish, and, moody as it may be, my wife Peggy found the music “comforting”—but she’s a huge fan. We’re both quite familiar with “Black Swan,” “Clocks” and the extended version of “Harrowdown Hill,” having pedaled along to these pulsing beauties in countless spinning sessions at the gym, and hearing them again ramped up our anticipation.
We were not disappointed. The band—with Flea acting as co-frontman, while producer Nigel Godrich provided the color on electronic keys and guitar, on top of the primally sophisticated percussion laid down by Beck drummer (and son of Lenny) Joey Waronker and Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco of Forro in the Dark—was on fire from the first notes of “The Eraser,” as Yorke revisited the nine-track album in sequence. But what cinched the deal for us was the dancing of Yorke, as the grooves he’d dreamed up got him moving in controlled abandon, transforming him into the alt-rock equivalent of Michael Jackson, while on the other side of the stage, Flea jerked around as if being jolted by a syncopated series of electric shocks. Both were dancing machines—we couldn’t take our eyes off of them.
The first half of the set reached its delirious climax with “Harrowdown Hill,” punctuated by its delectable bassline, played with calibrated ferocity by Flea, while Yorke swayed along, singing the irresistible chorus, which Peggy and I have come to think of as an expression of a romantic oneness, despite the sobering premise of the lyric: “I'm coming home/I'm coming home/to make it all right/so dry your eyes/We think the same things at the same time/We just can’t do anything about it.”
The solo section that followed, which changed from night to night, began with the gorgeous new ballad “Give Up the Ghost,” nicely described by Steve Appleton in his review for Rollingstone.com: “He tapped the microphone to create a steady beat, looped it, added vocal parts and looped that, then played a melancholic riff with a Neil Young twang. "I've had my fill, in your arms, in your arms," he sang in a quiet, almost spooked state.” Yorke then slid behind the upright piano at stage left for a dusky take on In Rainbows closer “Videotape,” followed by a haunting performance of Kid A’s “Everything in Its Right Place,” its crystalline beauty italicized by the intimate purity of the presentation.
It was during this mini-set that Yorke’s vocal brilliance was showcased, but it was dramatically evident throughout the night. As the San Jose Mercury News’ Jim Harrington insightfully noted in his review of the previous night’s Oakland show, “He focused on delivering moods, not messages, and mumbled through his lyrics in a fashion that made his voice translate like another instrument onstage. His understanding of rhythm and cadence challenged that of a veteran jazz scat singer."
The band returned to blissfully wrap up the evening with the eerie Hail to the Thief B-side “Paperbag Writer,” bleeding into the intense new song “Judge, Jury & Executioner.” The 90-minute show came to a close with “The Hollow Earth” and “Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses,” both of which left a far deeper impression in the masterful hands of the band than they did in their original versions, released as two sides of a single last fall, inspiring a shimmying, limbs-akimbo freakout from Yorke.
As we walked down the hill, Peggy gave a spot-on assessment of the performance. “You know that I get bored easily at shows, but I wasn’t bored for one second tonight. They were just incredible.”
Great minds think alike.